September 15, a normal day for us foreigners. But, a day of pride and joy for Guatemalans. It celebrates their independence as a colony of Spain. This year, marked the 195th anniversary of independence for Guatemala. If in town, make sure not to miss out on this exciting day. Guatemala Independence Day is a true local holiday. To really enjoy the celebrations, you need to get off the tourist circuit and get local. Read on to see how I enjoyed Guatemala Independence Day as a foreigner.
The Lead Up
Guatemala Independence Day celebrations do not last only one day. The fervor slowly starts creeping in two weeks before the holiday. An abundance of flags begin to pop up on buildings and cars. Suddenly, street vendors are selling flags in the traffic lines. In the afternoons you can hear the BUUBUMP BUMP of drums. The bands are beginning to practice. As September 15th grows closer and closer, the afternoon sounds escalate. Even more bands are out practicing. People are starting to parade around, whether on foot or loaded in the back of a pick up. The sounds of whistles pierce the air.
The buildup of excitement hits a fever pitch on the 14th, the day before Independence Day. On this day, students participate in the tradition of the “atorchas” or torches. Beginning in Obelisco, a major intersection and roundabout in Guatemala City, students light the torches. Together with their classmates, they take turns running them back to their school. The run is meant to symbolize the spreading of the news of independence. School buses follow behind in case anyone grows tired – some students run back to their communities which can be more than 16 miles away! Starting in early afternoon, the whistles, torch runners and paraders hit an all time high and continue well into the night.
If your stay is near a school or on the route to one, you simply need to step outside to see all the excitement. Other options to see the festivities are to head to Obelisco to see the lighting of the torches or to walk around the city. Be cautious if walking around too much after dark.
Make sure you have rested up in anticipation for the day. The day can be long and there are a lot of crowds and sensory overload to ware you out. If your hotel has Guatemalans going out to celebrate Guatemala Independence Day or you’ve made some friends with the locals, I recommend joining them. Being with a local will give an even more unique, local experience. Also, it helps with navigating the crowds and vendors if you aren’t confident with your Spanish yet. When celebrating with a local, you won’t be on a main tourist street, but rather in the neighborhoods and local hangouts.
Starting at 7am or so, the bands begin their parades and continue well into the afternoon. Depending on where you are staying, or where you want to watch the events, get out early to stake out some space. My favorite place is to go to Sexta Avenida in Zone 1. There are plenty of bands marching and you can head up to the National Plaza for other activities. Throughout the streets are vendors selling face painting and 100% Guatemalateco head scarves and there are plenty of places to duck into for a quick rest.
Band after band marches down 6th avenue. There are baton twirlers and dancers. Some bands incorporate the nation’s Mayan history in their bands with either traditional Mayan dress or dressing as the deities. Every band member marches with the stoic pride of representing their school and nation on this special day.
When you’ve had your fill of bands for the morning, head to the main plaza where the National Palace is located. In the square, hundreds of food carts will be offering their goods. From tacos to tortas and crazy corn, this area has something to offer for everyone. My personal favorites are the tacos and crazy corn (elote loco). Some carts offer stools to sit on while you eat. Otherwise, you’ll need to brave the crowds to find a ledge to sit on to enjoy your lunch.
Next, head in front of the National Palace where musicians are playing the marimba, the national instrument of Guatemala. There are parades from the polytechnic schools in full military uniform showing marching patters. Vendors weave in and out of the crowds selling horns, whistles and other items for the festivities. Later in the afternoon, head back up 6th avenue (or any of the side streets) to see more bands play. Usually by 3pm, the bands have mostly wrapped up for the day, which is a perfect time to head back to your hotel.
Guatemala Independence Day is perhaps one of the most celebrated holidays in Guatemala. Even as a foreigner, I highly recommend getting out and celebrating the day with the locals. Unlike Semana Santa, independence day celebrations are not catered towards locals and tourists alike. Rather, these celebrations are for the pride of the nation and it is best celebrated in the streets with the locals, not behind a tour guide. The Guatemalan people have a storied history and have overcome a great deal. The pride in which they celebrate their independence shows pride in not only their history, but also in where they are going as a country. Make sure you check out this exciting holiday when you are in Guatemala next fall.
Have you ever been in Guatemala for independence day? If so, how was your experience? How did you celebrate? Let me know in the comments!